Storm Warning


The corporal pleaded guilty to all counts except the last, explaining to the court that all he had threatened to do to the party of the second part was “kick his teeth out.” The court went into closed session and the members scratched their collective head and wondered aloud what we could never have asked in open court: What in the world was going on? We concluded that this heretofore picture Marine had somehow managed to seriously alienate either his 1st sergeant or company commander, who had then decided to teach him a lesson.

We had no choice. We found him guilty of all counts except the last and sentenced him to be reduced to private and thirty days’ restriction. This was as mild a sentence as our board ever handed down and was received stoically by the defendant.

Life resumed at Two-Two and very shortly thereafter, my two-year cycle with the battalion being over, I lost touch with it and never did learn the story behind the corporal’s (now private’s) court-martial. When I was released from active duty six months later, at the end of my three-year commitment, I learned that the former corporal had decided not to pursue a career in the Marines and was asking to be released early so he could enroll at the University of Texas. This request was later granted.

I should mention that except when addressing or talking about one’s peers, first names were rarely used by Marines of that time. So it was that in August of 1966 when a lone rifleman went to the twenty-seventh-floor observation tower at the University of Texas and shot dead thirteen passersby, wounding thirty-one others before being himself shot dead by a police team, despite the fact that it was reported sensationally in the news media (which revealed he had also shot dead his young wife and his mother before going to the tower), the name Charles Whitman didn’t strike a responsive chord in me.

We concluded that this heretofore model Marine had somehow seriously alienated his commander.

Then the following week’s Time magazine was delivered and I glanced at the cover and saw a familiar, handsome face. My first reaction was, “What’s Corporal Whitman doing on Time ’s cover?” Then I realized in a rush of horror that Corporal Whitman and Charles Whitman were the same person and that the mayhem in far-off Austin had been caused by a person I knew very well. I still get a shiver when I think of seeing that magazine cover for the first time.

The autopsy of the former Cpl. Charles Whitman, USMC, an architectural engineering student at the University of Texas, revealed a “pecan-size” brain tumor that had evidently caused his aberrant behavior. One doesn’t know whether to feel worse about the young man who had once shown such brilliant promise and whose life had ended so tragically, or about his poor anonymous victims.